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Relationships with Food

While visiting my younger daughter in Philadelphia, we had a lovely lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Southampton. Food, fresh, interestingly imagined and created, tingled our taste buds so our conversation veered towards eating. We agreed that we often finish whatever is placed on our plates, whether we are full or not.Howard contributed that he had read that while eating, one’s body “ sighs” to indicate the tummy is full. I recalled that boomers, growing up, were often taunted with “ Children are starving in Africa( or India), so eat up” ; or perhaps Jewish culture that is subsumed with food remains the culprit in encouraging the clearing of plates of every morsel. And how often have we contrasted our heaping excessive groaning tables to the dainty food offerings of perhaps a glass of wine and a tiny tray of artful appetizers that suffices at weddings or engagement parties for other religious groups. Yet, both my daughter and I concluded what we really enjoyed was the snap, crackle and pop of textures, the combinations, contrasts and qualities that tantalize both the pallet and the eye. As well, sitting down together encourages dialogue, to chat and extend views , a natural conversation opportunity, but food the rallying point and reason.

My mind sought precedents of my children’s earliest eating days, and their predilections. Remembering her sister as a fussy eater, I recalled seeking temptations for her tastebuds. Over forty years ago, I had sought out sweetbreads for her, peeling the membranes, and dismissive of the cost, purchased them at a high end food boutique,Neal’s, – way before Whole Foods or Pusateris were on the horizon. But even earlier I had consulted food guru Adele Davis whose insights were truly the backbone of conscious eating before foodies erupted into waves of cognoscenti of where and what to eat healthy.

I’ve tried to resurrect from my mind favourite dinners as we had, over the years, sought out Michelin meals , mouth burning offerings in Thailand, macaroons in France, Peking duck in China, thick pea soup on the cruise deck of an Alaska ship while watching the ice bergs crash into the water, seafood on the shores of Hawaii(soft winds seductively blowing), sophisticated and smart lunches and dinners in almost impossible- to-reserve locales in New York, Chicago and LA, along with the iron chef properties from San Diego and Las Vegas, those homemade pastas from Zucca and Tutti Matti in Toronto: where they really know how to turn out perfect pasta…and my mind like a spinning wheel could not land on which I loved most.

What does stand out,however, is the marriage of meal and atmosphere, especially an evening under the velvety sky of Ayers Rock, Uluru, sampling alligator and Barramudi, in the darkness so thick you could feel it wrapping itself around you, the sprinkling of stars turned upside down from our home in Canada.My mother’s roasted chicken surrounded by perky orange carrots and perfect little burnished potatoes still simmering in its tomatoey juices while we pulled over to a cool roadside for a lunch under shady trees. Or my husbands 70 th birthday at On the Twenty in Ontario wine country, tables overflowing with flowers, all of us attired in white: cottons, ruffles, buttoned downs, embroidered, a room separate from the dining hall, our own guitar musician, and the children and grandchildren bopping during courses, food individually selected for each participant for the evening feast along with non ending wine, a perfect evening where the rain and humidity cleared so the event could shine ( and my hair not frizz).But the entrees, grown locally and lovingly cooked.

To celebrate an event, the food must, of course be delicious, but the beauty of the setting, the attitude and warmth of camaraderie must also coalesce. I’m thinking too of my backyard garden party when to formally present myself as a doctor of education, I planned a dinner with a three woman band so we could dance at the edge of the pool under the awnings of pristine tents. The array of white flowers winking on the table, an assortment of food choices, attentive waiters, the relaxed conversation and laughter of friends and family that stretched into a night of speeches and casual chatter. My kids were young and funny and the night swelled with love.

Behind these self directed events are often months of planning, for me, intrinsic to the meal. I relish the background search, deciding which textures of blooms and arrangements will highlight the tables just as I settle on which dress will make me feel special. For Howard’s 70 th, I surprised myself by choosing a dress that I had actually bought years before for another event. It was chic, beautiful, comfortable and also housed delicious memories. Even writing or choosing a perfect invitation for the event is a pleasure, a meaningful compliment to all the details. Each detail contributing to the climax: a perfect meal.

For the house party for our 40 th anniversary at my son’s, I knew my elder daughter had spent hours on the phone with the caterers ensuring a meal non pareil. And although I regretted how stiff my hair was that night, the interplay of family, food, photographs was celebratory and unforgettable.

I’m trying to recollect the many meals eaten with and without family, but quiet dinners at specially identified and researched locales and although I do review them now, they appear to me as fresh uncut pages from a new book. Allo was exceptional with multilayered and unique combinations of flavours( a birthday treat arranged by my son, requiring three months of reservation), but so too was George’s pizza on DuPont or College with my uncle so many many years back when I was still a teen in oversized glasses- different firsts for experimenting with untried tastes and trying new things.

But then too, guests of my famous great uncle Joe the gambler-auctioneer, my family vacationing in California, was treated to the impossibly posh Sportsman’s Lodge where I tiny on a tiny bridge caught a trout in the stream beneath that was immediately cooked and presented to the table for dinner. And will I , an untested taster of 15 who had never eaten in a restaurant in Toronto, let alone non- kosher food, ever forget my premier ( and last) MacDonald’s burger and milkshake so thick it could barely be sucked up a straw, after sunning with my cousins on Hermosa Beach in California?

And how can I forget my first Risttoffle feast in Amsterdam with my aunt and uncle when I was barely 18, followed years later by my daughter’s obsession with fries, gleaned at Little Pissing Boy, somewhere near Dam Square, she maybe five then?Or the three month sabbatical where we frequented Il Castillo for Sunday night suppers in the hills surrounding Montobueno in Italy where The Red Brigade was rumoured to hide?

And this European adventure recalls Berlin last summer where the chef with the man bun opened the door a smidgeon at Nobelhart and Schmutzig and we were served ten impossibly fresh specialties such as raw eel and liquorice ice cream, shaved pine cones…

I suppose I am concluding that there are the unusual moments, the firsts that catch in our mouths , that cause us to stop and savour something exceptionally unique for its flavour, its awakening or piquing or even confounding our senses, pondering how does this vegetable, this lowly single egg( from True Foods), this combination of flavours makes me arrest my salvaging, my chewing, my swallowing, my mastication to really parse and reflect on what is being ground to pulp between my teeth- and years later, search for evidence in my head full of so many meals.

But underlying all of this eating and dining business is the presence of not just an enhancing milieu but a milieu rendered enhancing by those ones best loved, and being able to share over a meal time that stretches and clothes those moments with being together, chattering, coming together, gazing and observing how life goes, how those persons relate to you, how they are faring in life, and seeing the food before you as a rallying point for exchanges that continue to bind.

But hey, tasty food helps immensely.

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Road Trips, Habits and Such

Whenever I eat chocolate cake, I must wash it down with milk. Howard grimaces but recognizes with a guffaw that this is my habit: a pattern gleaned from my childhood. 

There are so many habits, customs, shtick, stories we bring from our pasts.

 On Mothers Day, Ariel was regaling my grandsons with stories from her own growing up days. As always, Erica the youngest, was the trickster. Ariel related how Erica in Montebuono, Italy would jump up and down on her bed screaming “Jolliflex, Jolliflex” and then dive beneath her covers at the approach of Howard’s or my footsteps on the stairs. Ariel reminded us of the demise of Pighead, a makeshift toy(?) made from a styrofoam cup that I finally threw out the window when Pighead had oinked one too many times and Erica raged for hours and hours grieving her “favourite” toy. We recalled her penchant to eat only chocolate and fries for almost three months during Howard’s sabbatical in Europe. We chuckled over the night secrecies of Jordan and Howard who scampered out at midnight to locate Chinese food in the narrow streets of Paris. In a tiny hotel on rue Dauphin, Ariel remembered the walls being so thin that she could overhear the conversations between the couple in the room next door :

“I’m so hot ( no air conditioning in Paris in the summer).”

“ So? Leave!”

 We reminisced about the numerous trips we shared with our children and their antics. Listening intently but convulsed with laughter, my seven year old grandson almost burst with merriment at the stories his aunt was weaving about the tricks and mischievous behaviours of her sibs. For me these tales were a reminder of our being together, often trapped in Citroens or Puegots for hours, discovering new gites, and castles.

 We, just a family, wandering on shady off –route highways through a carefully charted course: through a variety of areas in Paris, from Dordogne to Brittany, our path engineered around castles and the locations we had booked from pamphlets and brochures. There were castles and churches and art galleries and parks and tourist attractions. And for some crazy reason we had encouraged Jordan to jump the cordon in a castle where Leonardo da Vinci had slept ( apparently) so we could take his picture next to a Louis XIV bed, and the booming voice that shook the room, menacing, “De l’autre cote, si vous plait..”

 My son had an imaginary friends( Apple),and alter-egos ( Peter Ishnu, for one) and was a lovable, happy guy . He who cried bitterly to leave his friend in Toronto for the three month trip, weeped even harder to depart Europe. For me, the blazing glory of fields of swaying sunflowers in Arles as Van Gogh must seen them overwhelmed me. At Masion- Carree in Nimes, France built about 12BC and dedicated to Augustus Caesar’s adopted sons, Erica took to the temple’s stage to belt out her own rendition of “ Doctor, Doctor”. Bewildered watchers gathered to witness the irreverent sight.

 Our trip that year culminated in a stone farm house in Italy. Across the dusty road from us , Mrs. Joseph, the owner from New York lived or rather grandly and elegantly inhabited her space. She had brought an architect from Yale to build two houses, for herself and her son- who showed no interest at all so she rented his, the one where we were staying for a month .It was to be one  excruciating breathless summer, but obviously not worried about the extremities of the impact of heat on fragile perishables, the fabulous lady commissioned a huge cream cake for Ariel’s birthday. As well there was a cream-coloured crocheted top.

 I will never forget the scene of entering her house and witnessing a cache of people discussing Thomas Hardy to the whirr of humungous flies circling their heads, like miniature helicopters. To the barrage of scorpions that overwhelmed us that day, she calmly reminded us to make sure we shook out our shoes and socks every morning. Having addressed our query and enquiring if we would take tea or coffee, she continued her conversation on Hardy’s literary style and symbolism.

 The Red Brigade was rumoured to have their headquarters nearby in the mountains. We eagerly anticipated our suppers on Sundays in a castle, El Castillo, that offered the best and thinnest pizza ever. At the edge of Mrs. Joseph’s property, were horses that Erica liked to pet. She in particular was covered in bites so large that we might have been staying in some poverty-bound third world county. Lucia, Mrs. Joseph’s housekeeper, made us lasagna, but when we slammed the oven door so hard that the glass splintered on the ceramic floor ,we were without an oven for a week. In deed, it was so hot, (the Monsoon season, they demurred ) that summer that we were prostrate on the beds, fanning ourselves with books abandoned from former renters. When the water stopped running, we had to drive into Rome, for we did not comprehend Lucia’s impassioned explanation, “ Agua, adesso!”

 What did my children learn from these forays, what new habits did they form? Certainly Erica’s palette did not expand, nor did Jordan ever forgive my penchant to pinch those annoying me in the backseat or take action against “Pighead”. Nor did he develop a thirst to admire the stained glass of churches in lieu of the crack of a bat. Yet the sweetness of the Mrs. Joseph’s birthday cake has hovered in Ariel’s mouth forever, I believe. Did they develop a predilection for travel, secretly embracing new habits or developing new patterns? 

How can I know? We, as parents happily returned home, because “ home is the place…”, yet desirous for more adventures, again packing up our kids and hoping they would imbibe our passion, and into the new generation share their own special adventures with their own children
 

 

 

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Generations

En route to visit daughter# 2 several months ago, we turned on Marc Maron’s WTF and listened to two interview/ conversations. One was with Ivan Reitman of Meatballs and Ghostbusters fame and the other was with David Bronner scion of a famous German-Jewish family whose soapmaking tradition began in 1858. Each man spoke about relationships with family. Most specifically father and sons.

Ivan’s son, Jason, went on to produce less funny films than his father such as Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. In the conversation that highlighted Reitman’s early work with John Balushi Howard Shore ( actually a cousin on my mother’s side!), Martin Short and others, Ivan Reitman displayed a kind of humility and forthrightness about his directing career and what he suggested triggered Saturday Night Live’s emergence into comedy programming, My interest wasn’t so much on what Reitman said, but how he said it. Touching on a plethora of topics that eventually veered towards Jason, he displayed great affection and respect for his son, without being saccharine, or over the top. I flashed to a loving portrait I had seen the day previously at the AGO of the artist Henry Moore and his mother reading to him as he curled into her body. They were shown caught in a personal moment. No words, but the loving relationship was clear. Here in the podcast, it was the timbre of the words that responded to Maron’s questions and encouraged Reitman to carry on as long as he chose.

The second interview revealed that David Bronner ( whose “ magical” soaps are sold at Whole Foods) great grandfather who had had visions and was even locked away in a mental institution. On his soaps’ wrappings were printed such thoughts as “If I am not for myself, who am I for?”, from Rabbi Hillel as well as other messages to promote self-reflection into unity, collaboration and world peace. The soap business passed to David ‘s father and uncle who appeared to have followed a more conventional style of soap wrapper. Eventually David who had scorned any previous links to the business, took over: working for a year with his father who eventually passed away.

Here the conversation came alive as David Bronner presented his own mission: to wrestle from Monsanto harmful agents, and to work towards foods that are not genetically -altered as an impetus to maintain a healthier environment. He even sowed actual seeds on the White House lawn. David obviously hoping to garner attention to his causes, locked himself in a metal cage outside the White House, protesting the illegality of growing hemp, one of his soap’s main ingredients. The mantle had been passed to the grandson from his father, grandfather and great grandfather into this generation.

Bronner seems to have almost unconsciously inculcated the visionary spirit of his ancestors: towards improving the world. He spoke with such passion, explaining that only enough money to run the company is taken out and additional profits go towards charities. I was reminded of Albert Barnes, American physician, chemist, businessman, art collector, writer, educator, and founder of the company that produced Argyrol : silver nitrate antiseptic solution for the treatment of gonorrhea and a preventative of gonorrhea blindness in newborn infants. Philosophically, Barnes believed in profit-sharing with his workers and promoting diversity. His collection of mainly Impressionist art at the Barnes Collection ( a must-see for all art aficionados) is housed in Philadelphia. Mentored by John Dewey, Barnes was considered a rebel.

Both the Reitman and Bronner families had escaped oppressive regimes, Russians in Czechoslovakia, and Nazis in Austria, risking everything when they arrived in their new countries of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps having lost family or striving to establish themselves in foreign places had refocused parental energy towards demonstrating love and relationships in tangible ways, proving to their children that values live in people, not places. By the way, on September 8, the day before 2010 TIFF opened, Ivan Reitman and his sisters christened Reitman Square, the new headquarters of the Toronto festival’s year round administration on the property left to them by their own parents. Rather than parents being just a footnote or a passing comment, the interviewees revealed a real connection to the driving forces of their forbearers, paying more than just lip service.

As a parent and grandparent myself, I segued into how I and my husband will be remembered: hopefully more than our son’s lament that he was stashed with friends on his 5th birthday and pushed down hills because we were at work; or anger at being forced to share a bologna sandwich with his sisters. Hopefully it will be a memory of a trip where he consumed a delicious pizza outside Rome in an ancient castle aptly called Il Castello. Will he recall Howard and me dressed as maid and butler serving his friends at a celebratory lobster dinner for him , all of us consumed with laughter at each courteous course.

Maybe it will be our daughter’s birthday in Montebuono during Howard’s sabbatical; or perhaps a family boat cruise to Rio or watching the Cubs in Chicago all together. Maybe it will be revisiting our faces charged with pride and happiness at a graduation here or away; or Howard’s chaperoning the CCOC to Salt Spring Island. More likely it will be a resurgence of annoyance at the overwhelming deluge of toys loving bestowed to grandkids on my birthdays that riled my children into suppressing anger; or the “horrid” bulgur chicken or “healthy” spaghetti served to them as children. I hope it will be a mixture of some things good at least.

As the years go by, I actively try and make those moments with my own parents resurface, recalling more of myself; and with myself, them. Like buds from trees, we are parts of a whole, that continue to bloom and carry on, even when the branches have withered .

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